In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Bioarchaeology of Childhood

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Development
  • Definition
  • Research Questions
  • Journals
  • Preservation, Representation, Selective Mortality Bias, and the Osteological Paradox
  • Theoretical Approaches: Biocultural Approach, Stress, Health, Life Course Theory, and Plasticity
  • Skeletal and Dental Identification
  • Estimation of Age, Sex, and Ancestry
  • Still Birth, Fetuses, Infant and Maternal Death, and the Infanticide Issue
  • Infant and Child Mortality and Paleodemography
  • Specific Bone Disease
  • Trauma
  • Diet and Weaning: Isotopic Analyses, Oral Health, and Dental Wear
  • Mortuary Analyses
  • Associations

Childhood Studies Bioarchaeology of Childhood
Sian Halcrow, Stacey Ward
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0178


Childhood bioarchaeology may be defined as the investigation of the skeletal remains of children (including infants) from an archaeological context. As with all bioarchaeological research, a biocultural approach is used, which assesses human biology within the context of the interaction between the natural and cultural environment (see Theoretical Approaches: Biocultural Approach, Stress, Health, Life Course Theory, and Plasticity). Following this approach, skeletal evidence for diet, infection, and stress is seen as an indication of the environmental context in which past peoples lived. It is now acknowledged that infants and children are sensitive barometers of the health of the wider population because they are physically growing and developing their immune systems, and therefore most susceptible to stress and disease. Moreover, children are central to bioarchaeological reconstructions because they made up a large portion of past living communities, and many of the indicators of stress in adult skeletons (the “survivors”) formed during their childhood. Despite the preconception that infant and child remains are poorly preserved and underrepresented, the usefulness of bioarchaeological investigations of children has been acknowledged. As a result, there has been a recent flurry of work in the area. Many archaeological sites from different temporal and geographic contexts feature good skeletal representation, allowing the study of infants and children at these sites. Childhood bioarchaeology has therefore been integral to answering central archaeological questions ranging from health implications associated with the development of agriculture, social organizational change, climate change, and migration. Recent methodological advances and concomitant increases in the investigation of infants and children in cemetery samples have been particularly useful in highlighting patterns of disease, subsistence mode, and weaning patterns, which provide information on the health of the community and of the environment in which they live. Recent advances in social archaeological theory, life-course theory, growth plasticity theory, and the developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD) concept are highlighting the centrality of early life stages to understanding past societies and the intrinsic relationship between maternal and child health within a contextualized social framework. Future research directions in childhood bioarchaeology should include a more integrated approach incorporating adult skeletal remains, which will advance our understanding of the relationships between different life stages.

General Overviews

Although the past two decades have witnessed an increasing number of works on the bioarchaeology of childhood, as a relatively new subfield there is an almost complete lack of textbooks solely devoted to childhood bioarchaeology. The Bioarchaeology of Children: Perspectives from Biological and Forensic Anthropology (Lewis 2006) is the only book dedicated to the bioarchaeology of children, and it forms the primary textbook for this subfield. This work features a wide coverage of the subject, providing insight into methods of age and sex estimation, paleodemography, and paleopathology, while also interweaving social aspects of childhood throughout the text. Other general overviews on the subject are review papers or edited volumes. Perry 2005 presents and critically evaluates the methods and theoretical background for the biocultural study of children and childhood in the past. Halcrow and Tayles 2008, a critical review, is a detailed theoretical work on the biocultural approach to the study of children and childhood in bioarchaeology, with a focus on the central topic of biological and social aspects of age. Baxter 2005, The Archaeology of Childhood, provides essential reading on childhood in the past, drawing on social theory, and includes a chapter on mortuary remains. There are a limited number of edited volumes dedicated to the study of childhood from the bioarchaeological context. Lally and Moore 2011 is the published proceedings from an international meeting on the archaeology of infants and children. The majority of the contributions to this volume are bioarchaeological and/or mortuary archaeology research, with many addressing issues of age categorization of infants and children. The chapters in the recent edited volume Thompson, et al. 2014 provide a diverse array of biocultural studies of childhood in the past, integrating social theory, history, archaeology, paleopathology, and demography, and contributing to a more humanistic approach to the bioarchaeological study of children. Lillehammer 2015 is a recent commentary on the development of the archaeology of childhood over the past twenty-five years, which provides an excellent overview of the social aspects of childhood in the past that underpin child-focused bioarchaeological work. The integration of bioarchaeological work within this commentary illustrates the increase in social approaches within the subfield of childhood bioarchaeology, as well as the increasingly cross-disciplinary nature of approaches to the archaeology of childhood. Although calls for the inclusion of children within bioarchaeology seem to be heard, and infants are now routinely analyzed in the context of isotopic weaning studies, the integration of infants in some areas of bioarchaeology, including paleopathology and paleodemography, as advocated relatively early by Saunders and Barrans 1999, is an area that has much future research potential.

  • Baxter, Jane Eva. The Archaeology of Childhood: Children, Gender and Material Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2005.

    A comprehensive and accessible book that provides information on the study of children and childhood from an archaeological perspective, with a particular focus on the concepts of socialization and gender. Although not focused on the bioarchaeology of childhood per se, this book provides theoretical information on childhood in the past essential for bioarchaeological approaches, and chapter 7 explores child mortuary remains, including health, nutrition, mortality, and issues of identifying age-based categories.

  • Halcrow, Siân E., and Nancy Tayles. “The Bioarchaeological Investigation of Childhood and Social Age: Problems and Prospects.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 15.2 (2008): 190–215.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10816-008-9052-x

    A detailed theoretical review of the field of infant and child bioarchaeology, useful for undergraduate and postgraduate students and researchers in the field. Provides a critical assessment of biological and social age, along with the problems and prospects within childhood bioarchaeological research and the integration of social archaeological theory. Also presents a short review of methods of health-related analyses.

  • Lally, Mike, and Alison Moore, eds. (Re)thinking the Little Ancestor: New Perspectives on the Archaeology of Infancy and Childhood. British Archaeological Reports International Series 2271. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2011.

    This volume represents a multidisciplinary collection of papers, including bioarchaeological, social archaeological, and ethnological research, originally presented at the first major international conference on the archaeology of infancy and childhood in 2005. The majority of the chapters assess childhood from a biological perspective and/or mortuary analyses, with several investigating social and biological age, a central topic in bioarchaeology and social archaeology.

  • Lewis, Mary E. The Bioarchaeology of Children: Perspectives from Biological and Forensic Anthropology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511542473

    The only (single-authored) book devoted in its entirety to the bioarchaeology of infants and children, while also including a forensic component. It provides an accessible, comprehensive, methodological and theoretical overview of the field and has an extensive bibliography. This is most useful for students and professionals in the field of bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology.

  • Lillehammer, Grete. “25 Years with the ‘Child’ and the Archaeology of Childhood.” Childhood in the Past 8.2 (2015): 78–86.

    DOI: 10.1179/1758571615Z.00000000030

    Commentary of the developments in the archaeology of childhood, twenty-five years after the author’s landmark publication “A Child is Born: The Child’s World in an Archaeological Perspective” (published in Norwegian Archaeological Review 22.2 [1989]: 89–105), which largely stimulated the development of the field of childhood archaeology. Although focused on developments within the archaeology of childhood, the cultural aspects of this field are central to the biocultural approach used by bioarchaeologists.

  • Perry, Megan A. “Redefining Childhood through Bioarchaeology: Toward an Archaeological and Biological Understanding of Children in Antiquity.” Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 15.1 (2005): 89–111.

    A review of issues pertinent to the study of childhood, including preservation and representativeness of samples, definitions of childhood, and the importance of children in the past. The intersection of biology and culture in interpretations of childhood is illustrated with a bioarchaeological case study in the Near East.

  • Saunders, Shelley R., and Lisa Barrans. “What Can Be Done about the Infant Category in Skeletal Samples?” In Human Growth in the Past: Studies from Bones and Teeth. Edited by Robert D. Hoppa and Charles M. Fitzgerald, 183–209. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    This chapter represents one of the first comprehensive theoretical works on the topic of infant bioarchaeology, a topic that is still relatively understudied. Provides a methodological and theoretical review of issues such as terminology, infant underrepresentation, age and sex estimation, infant feeding practices, and determining factors that affect mortality and morbidity at different stages during development.

  • Thompson, Jennifer L., Marta P. Alfonso-Durruty, and John J. Crandall, eds. Tracing Childhood: Bioarchaeological Investigations of Early Lives in Antiquity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014.

    A collection of diverse bioarchaeological studies that showcase integrative biocultural approaches to the study of childhood in the past. Chapters incorporate paleodemographic, paleopathological, social theory, and historic, archaeological, and ethnographic information, providing a humanistic archaeological approach to children.

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